<
>

Once left for dead, 'Cuse is a team on a mission

NEW YORK -- We'd like an explanation, please.

Someone, anyone, has to come up with an answer for how a team can look like it mailed in the season, basically left for dead March 2 when Syracuse lost by 39 points at 13th-place DePaul, and then a week later arrive in New York with its bubble about to burst only to win four games in four days and snatch the Big East tournament title in the best, deepest and what most are expecting to be richest NCAA-bid league in the country.

"If someone can explain that, I want to hear it," Syracuse sophomore guard Josh Wright said. "We lost by 39 to DePaul, so this shows how much heart this team has. We could have buckled and shut it down for the rest of the season."

But then everyone in Madison Square Garden and the rest of the country watching would have been robbed of one of the most fabled college basketball conference tournament performances.

The decision to hand Syracuse senior guard Gerry McNamara the MVP trophy wasn't official until after the Orange's 65-61 victory Saturday night. But the trophy could have been sent out during the game to be engraved. Win or lose, McNamara was the MVP of this thing; and had he not been named so, the Big East should have hired an independent investigator to review the voting.

McNamara averaged 16.3 points, 8.3 assists and made a Big East tourney record 16 3s in four days on a gimpy groin. He won a game, tied another and got the Orange to within one in a third game -- all on 3-pointers. He had a balanced game Saturday against Pitt, leading his squad to the championship.

When McNamara hoisted the MVP trophy after the game, the crowd kept chanting "Gerry!" It's the same serenade he received last Sunday during senior day at the Carrier Dome. McNamara, who is easily the most popular Syracuse player ever, tried to answer how the Orange turned around their season here in New York.

"We didn't quit," he said. "We played so hard down here and showed that we're pretty tough. What we did down here was pretty impressive. Had we played badly down here we would have been in the NIT. It looks like we're going to do the Dance."

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim echoed McNamara's comments when he said, "We're in the tournament now."

Seriously, though, Boeheim called this the best tournament win ever at Syracuse. He's not including that tournament the Orange played in back in 2003 called the NCAAs -- at least we don't think he is. But the reason he said that is because no one expected the Orange to come here and win with two of the top teams in the country in Connecticut and Villanova.

"We could have lost all four games, all four," Boeheim said.

A year ago, the Orange were one of the favorites to win the title, and then they lost to Vermont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a 4 vs. 13 matchup. Believe it or not, Boeheim and the rest of the Orange now say this is a better team. Seriously, even without first-round pick Hakim Warrick, the Orange look at themselves as a team that could advance deeper into March.

The reason: Options. A year ago, Boeheim said they had two: Warrick and McNamara. Now, the Orange have four with McNamara, freshman Eric Devendorf, Demetris Nichols (who made 4 of 5 3s Saturday) and forward Terrence Roberts (13 points). Even offensively-challenged center Darryl Watkins got busy with nine Saturday.

"We weren't ready to play last year [against Vermont]," McNamara said. "If we play like this [next week], then we'll be fine."

To sum up the Orange's magical run this week, we must go back to Wright. The seldom-used backup guard played six minutes and made all four free throws in the final 17 seconds as the Panthers fouled him, not McNamara.

"He hadn't been in the whole game, and he comes into that situation and if he misses then they have a shot to go ahead," Boeheim said of Wright making the first two to put the Orange up five and then two more to give the Orange the final four-point lead.

"I was feeling the pressure before I went to the line," Wright said. "But I knew I had to make those free throws. I've been told all year to be ready."

And he was. And after months of erratic play in the Big East, so, too, were the Orange. They were ready to take this tournament, something that only they knew was possible when they arrived in New York. Now, if they take the same attitude into the NCAAs, who knows what could happen next.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.